To Curb Opioid Deaths And Addiction, Mass. House Poised To Pass Bill Offering New Tools

Updated at 2:55 p.m

The general public would have more ready access to overdose-reversing medication, pharmacies would start moving to electronic prescriptions and state prisons would need to work with health authorities on a pilot for medication-assisted substance abuse treatment behind bars, under a bill teed up for passage in the House this week.

The bill represents the latest legislative effort to curb the scourge of heroin, fentanyl and other opioids that kill dozens of Bay Staters each week and leave many others with medical problems and familial struggles stemming from their addictions.

The House Committee on Ways and Means on Tuesday morning unanimously endorsed the bill with 26 members of the 34-member committee voting in favor of it in a voting poll that opened Monday night. House Speaker Robert DeLeo said Monday the bill would be taken up this week. House Democrats have tentative plans to meet in a closed caucus Wednesday to discuss the bill. Amendments to the bill are due Tuesday at 5 p.m., under an order adopted Tuesday morning.

Lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Baker are looking to build on a March 2016 law aimed at slowing the opioid addiction crisis.

Ways and Means scrapped an approach the governor has advocated for since 2015, enabling authorities to involuntarily hold someone for up to three days if their substance abuse presents a risk of significant harm.

An earlier bill produced by the Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Prevention included involuntary-hold language, but the powerful Ways and Means Committee left that provision out and it's unclear whether there will be a floor fight over the idea. The committee also scratched a section that would provide human service workers with loan forgiveness.

The bill includes a few approaches to prescriptions drugs and opioid addiction treatment that have been percolating for years.

The 2016 opioid law enabled patients to pick up only a portion of the narcotics they have been prescribed. The Ways and Means bill allows patients to partially fill a prescription and then go back and fill the rest. The bill also pushes prescribers and pharmacies to switch to electronic prescriptions of controlled substances by 2020, except in emergencies.

While seeking to tighten control over painkillers that can lead to addiction, the bill seeks to free up access to medication used to save people in the throes of addiction.

The bill directs the Department of Public Health (DPH) to issue a standing order, providing access to the overdose-reversing medication Naloxone, known as an opioid antagonist, to members of the general public acting in good faith.

The bill would also require acute care hospitals with emergency departments to be equipped to administer opioid agonists like methadone, which treat withdrawal systems and satisfy cravings for more dangerous street drugs.

A patient who shows up in an emergency room suffering from an opioid overdose would receive the agonist treatment and then be connected to a treatment site to continue the medical therapy, under the bill.

While state law enforcement seeks to cut off the supply of deadly and addictive intoxicants, the bill House lawmakers plan to take up focuses on prevention and treatment as opposed to criminal penalties. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has directed federal authorities to step up their efforts against illegal drugs, will travel to New England on Thursday where he will discuss the opioid crisis at a federal courthouse in Concord, New Hampshire.

DPH would need to work with the Department of Correction to create a two-year pilot of providing medically assisted treatment for substance abuse disorder to inmates, under the bill.

At an event in April, Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian and Franklin Sheriff Chris Donelan talked about the benefits and challenges presented by using medically assisted treatment to those incarcerated in their correctional facilities.

"We have transformed ourselves from a jail that does treatment into a locked treatment facility," said Donelan, who said administering opioid agonists can present a a security challenge because that medication has a contraband value.

Emerging while the House and Senate are still at odds over the annual budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, the opioid bill is one of several major items on a to-do list for lawmakers before they end formal sessions July 31.

Other priorities include an overhaul of the health care system, raising the tobacco purchase age and regulating and taxing short-term rentals.

With additional reporting from Matt Murphy, State House News Service



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